SEC Stars of the Spring
By Matt Smith
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Who will be the SEC’s breakout player in the fall, a la Tyrann Mathieu in 2011? Here are 10 names to consider.
With the conclusion of Texas A&M’s Maroon and White Game on Saturday, spring practices have come to a close in the SEC. Other than strength coaches, players and coaching staffs will not reconvene until the beginning of two-a-days in August. Spring practice is a time for growth and development, but also for eternal optimism. There are no opponents, and therefore, there are no losses. For players, spring is a chance to impress coaches and put themselves in position to earn a starting role in the fall.
With the caveat that not every spring success story will carry over to the fall, these 10 SEC players made names for themselves this spring. Expect to hear more from them come September.
1. Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon
With projected starter Eddie Lacy sidelined for the spring with turf toe, there was an opportunity for the young Alabama running back to step forward. After some strong performances in scrimmages, the 6’2”, 216-pound Yeldon broke out in the A-Day game, with 88 yards on the ground and 91 yards receiving.
A former Auburn commitment, Yeldon switched his pledge to the Crimson Tide a month prior to the start of the spring semester. Lacy is expected to be fully healthy in the fall, but Nick Saban teams always feature multiple running backs. His versatility compared to Lacy, who is a more traditional power back, will make him a valuable weapon for new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
2. Auburn DE Dee Ford
The Tigers were robbed of Ford’s services for most of last season when a back injury against Clemson grounded his sophomore season. Now healthy, Ford was one of the quickest to grasp new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system. The architect of the great Georgia defenses of the early 2000s praised Ford for his effort on every play this spring.
Ford is expected to backup returning starters Nosa Equae and Corey Lemonier at defensive end. A bit undersized for the position after initially signing with the Tigers as a linebacker, Ford's ability to continue adding strength during the summer months will be vital for his chances to play significant minutes in the fall.
3. Mississippi State WR Joe Morrow
The Bulldogs have gotten decent production over the past two seasons from Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis, but they’ve lacked the tall receiver who can dominate in the red zone simply with size. At 6’4”, 205 pounds, Morrow appears to be the answer to Mississippi State’s problem. The redshirt freshman caught six passes for 97 yards in the Bulldogs' spring game.
Morrow had enough of a grasp of the offense late last season that he could’ve played as a true freshman, but head coach Dan Mullen chose to save a year of eligibility. Both Bumphis and Clark return, along with Chris Smith, but Morrow’s unique skill set helps him stand out from the rest of the Mississippi State’s receiving corps.
4. Tennessee S Brian Randolph
Head coach Derek Dooley referred to his sophomore safety as “old man river” following the Volunteers' Orange and White Game. This was not a misnomer, but rather a compliment to the maturity and leadership of Randolph at the back end of Tennessee’s defense. In a deep secondary, Randolph appears to have won the starting free safety job for the fall.
Randolph thrived this spring in new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri’s aggressive scheme, including registering a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in the spring game. With injuries throughout the defense this spring, Randolph’s steady play and grasp of the system has helped ease the concerns about how the new defense will fare in the fall.
5. South Carolina CB Jared Shaw
It’s rare for a walk-on to make an impact at a major SEC program, but Shaw has done just that after a strong spring for the Gamecocks. Shaw won’t crack the starting lineup with Victor Hampton and Akeem Auguste ahead of him, but he will have a backup role and should contribute on special teams.
The senior’s spring highlights included an interception return for a touchdown and a blocked punt in separate scrimmages. He’s far from the most gifted athlete on the roster, but his intelligence and tenacity have been consistently praised by defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
6. Florida RB Mike Gillislee
Heading into his senior season, Gillislee certainly isn’t an unknown commodity. However, after only 56 carries as a junior backing up Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, it’s now Gillislee’s time to shine. If this spring is any indication, he should do just that in the fall. He was limited to just six carries in the Orange and Blue game, showing just how valuable the coaches think he’ll be this season.
Gillislee is much more of a between-the-tackles runner than Rainey or Demps, and sees the field well. He’ll also benefit from a much improved offensive line. Chris Johnson and Mack Brown will fight for carries as well in the fall, but there is no question who the starter will be when Bowling Green comes to Gainesville on Sept. 1.
7. Missouri DE Kony Ealy
Much has been made of the “philosophical changes” that Missouri will have to make to adjust to life in the SEC, but players like Ealy can make that transition go much smoother. A healthy Brad Madison should be back at one end position, but it will be Ealy who must help replace Jacquies Smith’s 39 tackles and 5 sacks.
Ealy has ideal size for the SEC at 6’5” and 250 pounds. After a redshirt year in 2010 and limited playing time last season, he appears ready to flourish right when the Tigers need him the most. Defensive line play has been the major factor in the SEC’s six straight national titles, and Missouri won’t compete at the level that it wants to in its new league without production up front.
8. Arkansas WR Marquel Wade
Wade made the news for all the wrong reasons last season after he was ejected from a game against Vanderbilt for a late hit on a defenseless punt returner. With the Razorbacks needing new targets for star quarterback Tyler Wilson after the loss of Joe Adams, Greg Childs, and Jarius Wright, Wade appears on track to make sure his headlines are positive in 2012.
Cobi Hamilton made enough of an impact over the past two seasons to know he’ll be a primary weapon in 2012, but it takes three or four receivers for Arkansas to do what it wants to do offensively. Wade finished with 136 yards and one touchdown in the Razorbacks' spring game after three strong scrimmages. He comes out of spring as in sync with Wilson as any receiver on the team.
9. Ole Miss WR Donte Moncrief
The emergence of the true freshman Moncrief was one of the few positives in an awful 2011 season for the Rebels. Moncrief carried that success over to the spring and should be the main playmaker for an offense that desperately needs one. He caught two touchdowns from Bo Wallace in the Grove Bowl.
With classmate and fellow top 2011 recruit Nick Brassell in and out of practice while dealing with an academic issue, Moncrief emerged as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver heading into the fall. While who gets the ball to Moncrief is still unknown, new coach Hugh Freeze at least has one thing going for him as he tries to resurrect the worst program in the SEC.
10. Vanderbilt WR Josh Grady
With running back Zac Stacy coming off of a 200-carry season, head coach James Franklin took it easy on his star running back this spring and focused heavily on improving the passing game. While Stacy’s starting role is secure, his role as the Wildcat specialist has been usurped by Grady, a redshirt freshman and former quarterback.
Grady’s speed and experience as a passer allows the Commodores to go in any of three directions out of the Wildcat: handoff, keeper, or pass. In the Black and Gold Game, Grady ran for one touchdown and threw for another, a 49-yard strike to Jordan Matthews. The emergence of Grady adds another interesting wrinkle to a Vanderbilt offense that made great strides in Franklin’s first season.